CEO’s Take on Student Loan Debt: Interview with Tenita Johnson
The Prosp(a)rity Project's Senior Research Analyst, Ashli Perkins, interviews Tenita Johnson, CEO of So it Is Written. During this interview, Tenita speaks to starting her own editorial/publishing company, explains how student loans have affected her journey, and gives advice to new entrepreneurs.
Ashli: What do you do for work?
Tenita: I’m the CEO of So It Is Written, which is a writing, editorial and publishing company. We help people get their manuscripts and books out into the market place in record time.
Ashli: Do you enjoy your work and feel it is the best use of your time?
Tenita: Oh yes! I love writing, I love editing, and I love proofreading. I love the feeling of when somebody gets their new book in their hands. It’s like a brand new baby. It’s like delivering a baby, but it’s a book.
Ashli: So you do feel this is the best use of your time, like it’s your passion and this is what I was meant to do?
Tenita: For sure, I do. I feel like it’s my passion, it’s my purpose. It’s a big part of my purpose because I just believe that we have the power to transform the world through words which is one of our tag-lines. But a lot of my transformation has come through books.I know that people’s lives can be changed through books, so I help my clients do just that. Whether it’s them telling their story, or it's a self-help book, or a devotional, I publish all types of books.
Ashli: What degree or degrees do you have?
Tenita: So actually, I have a bachelor of arts in journalism and then I have an MBA in marketing.
Ashli: Did you feel prepared to take on student loans? And were you knowledgeable about the topic?
Tenita: I don’t feel like I was very knowledgeable about the topic, but my mother didn’t have money set aside for me for college so it was scholarships or grants or student loans. Those were my only options.
Ashli: So it was just like it had to be done, there weren’t any other options. Prepared or not, this was how I had to get through my education?
Tenita: Yeah, so I was blessed in undergrad. I went to the University of Missouri and they waived my out of state fees, so I actually got in state tuition which made a big difference. And I did get a scholarship for four years. So for undergrad I only came out with maybe twenty-four grand in student loan debt. It’s the master’s that cost me like $30,000. No grants, no scholarships, it was all loans. So $30,000 in loans. So I have a total debt of almost sixty K. And it’s like a catch twenty-two (22) cause it’s like yeah degrees were important in corporate America, maybe maybe not for some jobs, but now that I’m a full-time entrepreneur like God why couldn’t you have told me that before I spent all this money on student loans?
Ashli: What role do your student loans play in your choice to work where you do/do what you do, if any?
Tenita: Oh yeah. I definitely thought I would work in traditional journalism so I wanted to be a newspaper editor or a proofreader. I wanted to work on the copy desk of a prominent city newspaper, but we see now in 2021, newspapers are almost obsolete. Like I don’t know many people who still read the actual, physical newspaper. So I know a lot of those newspapers are struggling or went to a skeleton crew. I ended up taking the route of corporate communications. I’ve been with a lot of car companies, like Ford Motor company, Volkswagen, Audi. I’ve been with Mercedes Benz financial services, but I’ve been in their communications department, so I’ve always been using my degree, just not in the way I thought I would. And so the master of business administration in marketing helps me a little bit with the marketing for my business and entrepreneurship, but for the most part, now I’m going back and taking more entrepreneur and business driven courses, versus general business administration.
Ashli: So do you think after looking back, would you have gone for the MBA or would you say if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t need it?
Tenita: Yeah, cause it’s like, Ashli, once you work for yourself, for me, to go back to corporate America, it would have to be a really sweet deal Ashli. They would have to be saying, we’re gonna pay you $250,000 to $300,000 salary. We’re gonna give you all these bonuses and vacation and perks. Because I did six figures in sales in my business last year so for me to go back to corporate America, they would almost have to double it. Like the deal has to be really really sweet for me to go back to corporate. So I wouldn’t necessarily get the master’s degree because I don’t really need it now. I need it, but not really.
Ashli: So you definitely feel like you learned more about business and business administration through your own business rather than the classes you took?
Tenita: Oh yeah, like a lot of the mistakes I had to learn were not textbook stuff. It’s more like on the job training, like when I first started my business, I didn’t take deposits, now people can’t sign an agreement with me unless they give me a deposit. So that was just something I had to learn through trial and error. And people not paying me on time. So yeah, I had to learn this the hard way.
Ashli: What are some misconceptions you’ve heard from others who are unfamiliar with the student debt crisis?
Tenita: So I actually have friends who are like, these people are never getting their money back. And I’m like what? Like what do you mean? I feel like that’s dishonorable. My absolute goal is to pay down my smaller debt and then start attacking my student loan debt because I borrowed the money and in good faith I want to pay it back. And so I think some of the misconceptions are that, I’ve heard people say, you’ll be paying student loans back until the day you die. And I’m like no, I won’t. I don’t plan on it. I believe you have what you say, so if you say you’ll be paying it back the rest of your life then I guess you’re going to be setting yourself up to be paying it back the rest of your life. But that’s not my plan. The other thing is I’ve heard people say student loan debt is good. This is good debt. And to a certain extent yes, but it’s still debt. I feel like it’s good debt while you’re in school because it’s deferred. But six months after you get out of college, they’re coming for you. Like you have to start payments. A lot of times for some people, it’s like a car note or a mortgage, it’s really expensive. So, I think the misconception is that if you take these student loans, even today in 2021, we have to be realistic, like if I take out $100,000 in student loan debt, am I going to come out making $100,000?
Ashli: So do you think financial awareness is just not there for some of those students (if you can pay $100 a month then you should, but if they say pay $25 a month then that’s all I’ll do)?
Tenita: Right, so I think we’re just not aware of the level of interest that we’re paying in twenty years. I got out of college in 2000, so twenty-one years ago. I don’t feel like my student loan debt has budged at all like I’ve literally been paying interest.
Ashli: Would you have done anything differently if you knew at the time of getting your degree(s) that you’d be in your current position, as it relates to having student loan debt?
Tenita: So for me, I probably would not have gotten the master’s degree because frankly, I don’t need it. I don’t need it to be an entrepreneur. I don’t feel like it gave me what I needed to run a successful business which is what I’m doing now. I think the journalism degree was a great experience. That’s what introduced me to the editing and proofreading side because when I originally went into journalism, I was going in as a writer and as a reporter. So while I am a great writer, my business was built on just editing for other people. Before I offered any other service, when I first started, the only other thing I was doing was editing and proofreading manuscripts like that was all I offered. I just branded myself as an editor, not even as a writer, but as an editor. So off of that, I built this platform. Now I offer ghostwriting, now I offer writing and book coaching, I actually coach others to write, but all of that came based on me starting the business and building the brand just off of editing and proofreading. And I wouldn’t have had that editing and proofreading experience had I not went to the journalism school.
Ashli: What do you think are some of the most effective ways we can go about mitigating the $1.6T student debt crisis?
Tenita: Definitely more financial awareness. I think there needs to be more guided instruction for students in high school to get them to a place where they’re applying to scholarships and grants. Painting the picture in black and white. So if you go to Harvard or Stanford, or if you go to Morehouse, if you go to this college, and you get “X” amount of dollars in scholarship, but you get “X” amount of loans, give them the worst case scenario of how long it’s going to take them to pay it back and let the students make their decision. I think a lot of times we make our decisions… I made the choice of my college not based on money, but based on what I wanted to do. So I knew I wanted to go into journalism, but I also had a full ride scholarship to a college in Michigan and I turned it down. Now that I’m an entrepreneur, I probably could’ve just taken the full ride to the college in Michigan, but I also wanted to get away from my mother. I wanted to go far far away from Detroit to Missouri. I was ten hours away so she couldn’t just drive up on the weekend. But there definitely needs to be financial management. They need to explain to students like when you sign up for these student loans, when you graduate college, you only have three months or six months before you have to start making payments. So worst case scenario, if you come out and you don’t have a job, and you’re working at Wendy’s, you can’t pay student loans back. Putting it in perspective… I think a lot of high schools work to get students to college, but it doesn’t prepare them for what they’re going to have to be faced with after college if you take on all this student loan debt.
Ashli: Any advice for those with student debt who are struggling or worried about paying back their loans?
Tenita: If you can pay something, pay something. If you can pay the interest, pay the interest. Don’t avoid them when they’re calling you, that’s not what you want to do. Because I think student loans are the only thing even if you file bankruptcy, you still owe student loans. It’s not forgivable. So my biggest thing is don’t avoid them, you took out the debt, so you need to work with a plan to start paying it back. If you can’t afford your payments, call them and talk to them. Listen, this is where I’m working, this is how much I’m making and this is how much I can afford to pay per month. When I pick up the phone and call, they’ve been more than willing to work with me whether it’s a deferment or forbearance, or it’s taking my payments down. Of course that stretches is out longer, but it gives me some breathing room. I’m not trying to pay my car note and my student loan which is the amount of a car note.
Ashli: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Tenita: The biggest thing is having a vision of where you want to be in life post-college because if I had the mindset, if somebody planted the seed in me in high school to say, why would you want to work for a newspaper, just start your own magazine or your own book publishing company, it was never even presented to me to be an entrepreneur. So I think schools do students a disservice by saying go to college, work a traditional job, like that’s not everybody’s journey. So you can’t give cookie cutter advice and push a kid into college, and get all these student loans and they get there and they fail and everybody in the family is disappointed. Well, they may not have wanted to go to college in the first place, because we as parents, we as society and as a community, as high school counselors, teachers, we always have students eyes on we got to get to college, you got to get a higher education. Why? Why is that the only option? Especially, if they have to take loans, the reality is, most people’s parents have not put thousands of dollars aside for them to go to college. Unless they’re a 4.0 student, and they get a full ride somewhere, which there aren’t many colleges that do that, offering students a full four years of tuition and room and board. You have to weigh your options. I think if the high schools actually talk to the students and say listen do you want to go to college, or are your parents pushing you to go to college? And if you’re not going to go to college, then let’s talk about some other options. Like what do you like, what is your passion, what do you feel like your purpose is? What is going to help you get up in the morning? Because there are students who go to college and are on campus by themselves and they don’t go to class! It’s a waste of money if you’re not motivated. I went to college because I was motivated. I was motivated to get the degree, I liked journalism, I liked writing, I liked being out of state. I knew if I messed up I would come home, so I did not jack up my scholarship at all. But for some kids, if they can’t handle high school, we do them a disservice by trying to push them into college. Maybe they need to take a trade, maybe they need to go into the military, maybe they need to study abroad for a year. But something other than go to a traditional college, get student loans, and waste the money because they don’t want it. Society says you need a degree, but not if I’m going to be a full-time entrepreneur, I really don’t.